By Madeline C. Mulkey
This was the question I set out to answer when I went to the Olympics in South Korea. My senior thesis for the University of South Carolina is determining how religion affected the atmosphere of the Olympics, and I did so through interviewing as many religious groups as I could find.
When I left for the Olympics, I was skeptical whether I was going to even find religious groups to write about. I knew of two religious organizations going, but I truly did not know what religion at the Olympics would look like, or if it would even be prevalent.
After arriving and getting out into the community, I approximated there were 3,000 active religious missionaries at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games. Every kind of missionary imaginable was in attendance. From the street preachers with signs warning of damnation to local churches offering free coffee and directions to visitors, missionaries turned out in great masses.
Baptists, Southern Baptists, the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Presbyterians, non-denominational Christians and Methodists were all actively engaging in this mission to reach the masses.
During my six days split between Pyeongchang, where outdoor events were held, and Gangneung, where ice sports were located, I interviewed any religious group that would talk to me about their ministry. The most common strategy was passing out the Gospel of John on the streets, but a few groups designed their ministry specifically for the Olympics.
A popular element of Olympic culture is trading lapel pins. Lapel pins are given out by Olympic sponsors such as Coca-Cola, Samsung and Visa, then traded with other pin traders. Skilled pin traders will bring thousands of pins to trade, including antique pins from previous Olympics.
A group of college-aged Korean students partnered with a group of former American missionaries to carry on this ministry tradition. Through trading lapel pins from former Olympics, the students would use the moment of conversation to give the “Gospel pin” to the pin trader. The Gospel pin is designed with the five colors used in “salvation bracelets” and is used to easily explain the Gospel story. The pin-trading missionaries would hang out at the pin trading centers and share their faith with any pin trader they would meet.
Art gallery ministry
Two blocks away from the Olympic stadium in Pyeongchang sat a church with a bright red cross beaming from its steeple and a small art gallery next door. Run by a member of the church, the man had a sign out front that said “free Korean writing.”
He would write a visitor’s name on a card in Korean and add “God loves you” at the bottom.
The art gallery itself was filled with paintings of Jesus’s life, and volunteers were available to answer any questions visitors had.
In Gangneung, a church called Somang Presbyterian Church used their location directly across from the Olympic Park as a way to reach the crowds.
Somang is a church of about 500, and they used their parking lot to welcome visitors to the area. Each day there was a different event happening in front of the church, such as free coffee and breakfast, an orchestra concert, church members dressed in traditional Korean outfits, etc.
The church members were friendly faces to anyone who crossed their paths, giving directions, entertainment and Christian literature to park-goers.
Olympic ministry is a niche ministry that touches people from all around the world. Missionaries who participate love it and begin planning the day they get home. My time researching the Olympics was insightful and eye-opening. Olympic ministry is not well known, but it is impacting the lives of thousands of people from all over the world.
Although the Olympics are considered a secular event, there is no doubt that God has a huge impact on the Olympic games.